About six months ago, I started painting my nails pretty colors. This has been a matter of some debate amongst my friends. I used to send pictures of my pretty pretty princess nails to everyone, and then a friend of mine told me, “I’m glad they make you happy, but I really don’t like your nails, so please stop sending me photos whenever you get a manicure.”
Fair enough. Not everyone has to like what I do.
I’ve also had someone on Fet go, “Well, you’re a submissive, so we’re not really compatible…” and I went, “Wait, when did I ever say I was a submissive?” Turns out that “having pretty pretty princess nails” == “Automatically submissive” to some.
Ironically, for me, my nails are a sign of confidence and strength. See, I’d been a life-long nail-biter, sometimes chewing my nails bloody. The first order of business after I’d lost all eight of my front teeth to gum disease was finding a way to bite my nails with my eye-teeth… which I did. It drove Gini nuts, but I was weak, a slave to the satisfaction of feeling my nails crunch underneath my incisors.
Then, one day, I discovered that some of my girlfriends really liked scratching. Like, deep, bloody, scratching. So in prep for a weekend away, I grew my nails out. Which was a real test of my willpower – I kept finding my fingers in my mouth, having drifted up there thanks to years of habit, and I’d have to yank them away angrily. Every ten minutes, I’d start to bite my nails, and then I’d remember that I was trying something new and I’d stop.
And lo! After forty years of biting and chewing and grazing, I managed to stop a bad habit. It was amazing. (And so was the sex. Goooo, Skinner Box!)
So when I had my long nails, it was deeply and bizarrely empowering to me. Not only were they a sign of the sadistic experimentations I was going through, but it was a sign of new-found willpower. It felt good, because here I was, a man of 42, and my nails were the sign that I was still changing my life in bold ways. I did not have to succumb to the stasis of middle age. I could quash old bad habits and find new pleasures – a fact made physically manifest whenever I went to type and discovered my nails clattering on the keyboard.
Then a girlfriend said, “Wait, you’ve never had a manicure? Oh my God, it’s luxurious.” And when I was in town, she took me to her manicurist, and I got taken straight back to my childhood. Because I realized, in that parlor….
…I could have the WORLD Magazine nails.
I wrote an essay on how eight-year-old me longed to have artwork on his fingertips, and to me that’s still one of the strongest memories of my childhood – wanting something that was perfectly reasonable, yet being told by literally everyone I knew that having colorful nails was not an option for me. The pictures of those fingernails were so detailed, it was like carrying a museum on your right hand, and why wouldn’t you want that? But that’s not what boys do.
Boys wear olive colors, and gray , and black. They wear identical suits, and if you’re lucky, you can have a different kind of shirt collar. And after that, I sort of gave up. I wore nothing but black shirts and slacks for years, and now that I look back at it it’s probably all related to being told that boys don’t get to have the fun colors.
So when Jen took me to the manicurist and I realized that I was a grown-up now, and I could dive into the damn ball-pit if I wanted, it was freeing. Intoxicating. I could be exactly what I wanted to be, and eight-year-old me did a goddamned victory lap. My nails would be as colorful as I wanted.
And it wasn’t due to rebellion. I wasn’t doing this because “Society says I must do X, so I will do Y to show them.” It was because I wanted to sport bold, tropical colors, and for the first time in a long time I was able to just do what I wanted. (Which is an entirely different thing than rebelling, though it looks pretty much the same from the outside.)
I call them my pretty pretty princess nails, which is a bit of rebellion – I know boys aren’t supposed to have these things, so I might as well embrace the genderfloomp and take pride in it. To me, they’re a sign of who I’ve become – which is, to say, an older fatter man who nevertheless has the evolutionary potential of a teenager. The nails reflect a changing sexuality, a greater willpower, a willingness to reinvestigate old, closed-off avenue. Who I am now isn’t who I was five years ago, and what does that mean for who I might be a decade from now? The future is vibrating with all sorts of awesome, and I see that awesome reflected in my shiny shiny nails.
Now, the nails also carry a sadness in them, because I recognize that they’re a significant sign of privilege. I work at home, so I don’t have to worry about the office. I’m a middle-aged white dude in a respectable income bracket in a liberal area of Ohio, so I can get away with this shit; if I was a teenaged kid in Arkansas or a senior citizen in a nursing home, this would all be off the table. This is all something I get to do because society has decided that I’m a person who should be able to buck the system and not get his ass beat for it, which I recognize.
(That’s what you do with privilege, man. Recognize. And work when you can to change the system. All it takes.)
The thing is, part of the issue is that in this society, women are the only ones who should decorate themselves. And you see men increasingly want to peacock a little, and when they do, they are so fucking terrified. Take a look at the descriptions behind this new nail polish for men - oh, sorry, nail armor. (Or “War Paint.”) They have to cloak this urge to have colors in all sorts of misguided and cancerous masculinity – men who beat other men use this! It’s a long tradition among warriors! Our colors are chrome and steel and military, so people won’t fucking mock you!
It’s sad, because the truth is, you’re gonna get mocked anyway. Just admit that you want to be pretty. You want to have flair. You want to stand out. And that’s all cool, man. But when you have to cloak this not feminine, but human desire to decorate yourself in such negations as “No self respecting man should ever have to buy cotton balls” (and then pay $3.95 for something that should cost two bucks tops down at CVS), then you have failed.
Be what you wanna be. Not everyone likes my nails. I do.
I’m cool with that.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.